Why Ageism Happens
Books have been written on this topic. Suffice it to say that workplace discrimination based on advancing age can occur based on a variety of reasons, including:
- Economic: Companies perceive that older employees cost more than their younger employees and don’t see older employees’ value as a significant offset to the cost differential.
- Health issues: Companies view older employees as a greater health risk–for example, more likely to cost them in terms of benefit payouts and absences due to illness.
- Knowledge and openness to learning: Older employees sometimes get saddled with the belief that they’re too set in their ways to change, to keep up with business trends, etc., and aren’t easy to train in new areas.
Much of the negative, knee-jerk reaction about older employees is, to put it impolitely, a bunch of hogwash! As a recent New York Times article (“You’re How Old? We’ll be in Touch“) notes:
“Not one negative stereotype about older workers holds up under scrutiny. Abundant data show that they’re reliable, handle stress well, master new skills and are the most engaged of all workers when offered the chance to grow and advance on the job. Older people might take longer to accomplish a given task, but they make fewer mistakes. They take longer to recover from injury but hurt themselves less often. It’s a wash.”
Ageism and Your Career Success
Some things you probably can’t change. If a company is shortsightedly bent on shedding its older employees, you’re not likely to buck the trend there. Save your breath–and your energy–to tackle battles you have at least a shot at winning.
For starters, take a candid look at yourself–your strengths, your weaknesses, the attitudes that might hurt you in a job search but that you aren’t fully aware of. For example, are you a 50-something senior manager who’s uncomfortable with taking direction from a 30-something C-level executive?
Next, take a look at the companies you want to target. Do they have a reputation for valuing their employees’ contributions–at any age? Does the wisdom you can bring to a company based not only on your management or leadership skills but also on all the lessons you’ve learned throughout your career enable you to deliver significant value to employers? If so, you need to find a way to communicate this effectively to them.
Remember that “younger employee” sub-set I mentioned earlier? Age discrimination against younger employees or candidates might not be as prevalent as the older group, but it happens–and it’s just as stupid. To quote the New York Times again:
“Age prejudice — assuming that someone is too old or too young to handle a task or take on a responsibility — cramps prospects for everyone, old or young. Millennials, who are criticized for having “no work ethic” and “needing to have their hands held,” have trouble getting a foothold in the job market. Unless we tackle age bias, they too are likely to become less employable through no fault of their own….”
The article also makes a point about the benefits to companies of looking beyond age as a factor: “Progressive companies know the benefits of workplace diversity….age discrimination hurts productivity and profits.”
If you haven’t yet run into the ageism issue yourself, count your blessings…and prepare yourself for a smart reaction before it happens!